By Karen Kasmanian Oates
I was inspired by Sally Ride.
Being a woman, maybe that isn’t too surprising. As the first American woman in orbit, Sally Ride became a hero and inspiration to millions of girls during the historic shuttle launch that took her into space in 1983.
The difference is that I wasn’t a girl and I was already a professional scientist. By the time Ride, who died July 23rd from pancreatic cancer, lifted off into the national consciousness 29 years ago, I was already a tenured professor of biochemistry.
Young girls watched and dreamed of their future when images of Ride working in zero gravity were broadcast back through their televisions. But watching as they did, I was transported into my past, to the time when I was the only girl in my high school physics class and the teacher would start every day, “Gentlemen … and Karen.”
There were female role models in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) world Sally and I grew up in – women like Rachel Carson, a marine biologist who was one of the first leaders of environmental movement – but they were few and far between. And, more importantly, they were not enough of a household name that would inspire teachers to inspire girls.
That was the magic of Sally Ride. She used her celebrity to not just reach girls in school but to also encourage teachers to excite their female students about the wonders of science. She spoke publicly about the responsibilities of universities to introduce girls, minorities and other under-represented groups to courses of study that would prepare them for careers in STEM fields.
Ride’s pronouncements echoed through colleges everywhere and allowed many of us in the higher education field to focus on that rather than the “publish or perish” pressure professors often face.
During that period, I was moved to create a camp for middle school girls at George Mason University, where I taught, called Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Camp. Hundreds of girls came to campus over several years and were introduced to the stimulating experiences that math and science offer.
Today, there are more opportunities and possibilities for girls interested in STEM than the 1983 Sally Ride could have imagined. Nearly 50 American women have traveled to space, almost all of them anonymous to non-NASA employees, a testament to the extraordinary path that Ride blazed.
Millions of women are working in science and technology-related fields. More and more are majoring in STEM subjects in college and many are deciding to take their education into the classroom to inspire a new generation of girls, mirroring Ride’s vision.
At WPI, we have a long-standing history of training STEM teachers. Earlier this year, we launched the STEM Education Center at WPI, where undergraduates can earn teaching certificates while working toward their Bachelor’s Degree. Current teachers can study for a Master’s Degree or fulfill professional development requirements. The first classes begin this fall.
WPI also hosts Camp Reach, a week-long science camp for seventh-grade girls. Now in its 15th year, Camp Reach was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring by President Obama in a White House ceremony last year. The first day of camp this year was Monday, the day Ride died.
Every year, we see the same look on the campers’ faces when they realize they are not the only girls their age that love math or think science is cool. There is a good chance that before this week, they had never heard of Sally Ride. And there is a great chance that, after this week, they will never forget her.
None of us will.